Ida B. Wells, 1862-1931

The Anti-Lynching Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1920
by Patricia A. Schechter, Ph.D.,
Portland State University

Pamphlets written by Ida B. Wells-Barnett on the subject of lynching comprise a substantial body of innovative writing, reporting, and analysis in U.S. intellectual history. In the 1890s especially, nascent professional social scientists, media opinion shapers, and leaders in the black community acknowledged and relied on her work.1 Indeed, Ida B. Wells-Barnett's foundational insights into the complex social dynamics behind the lynching for rape scenario have stood the test of time in the more than one hundred years since she penned them; yet her status and recognition as a social critic in the ensuing years has been embattled, to say the least.2 At her death in 1931, for example, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) journal, The Crisis, that her work had been "easily forgotten" and "taken to greater success" by others.3 Wells-Barnett herself complained in a diary of the neglect of "my anti-lynching contribution" in early black history textbooks penned by the influential scholar Carter G. Woodson.4 This essay suggests that rather than comprising a "forgotten" body work, Ida B. Wells-Barnett's pamphlet writings were appropriated and transformed by peers and colleagues in social reform. In turn, they marginalized her as author and leader.

Wells-Barnett criticized racism and lynching at a moment of intense anxiety about authentic personhood and belonging in U.S. history, an anxiety that was often expressed in the idiom of racial and sexual struggle.5 In order to launch resistance to lynching, she had to prove that lynching's primary victims, African American men, were people worthy of sympathy and citizens deserving protection. At the same time, she needed to present herself — an educated, middle-class Southern woman of mixed racial ancestry — as a credible dispenser of truth, a "representative" public figure able to command social and amoral authority. The context of racism and sexism in which she functioned made both tasks difficult. Wells-Barnett described lynching as an expression of conflict over rights, physical integrity, human dignity, and social power and the movement to end it was similarly fraught and contentious.

The anti-lynching pamphlets written before 1900 combine statistical analysis, muckraking journalism, and a kind of "talking back" to power in which the everyday language of the social order is turned on its head for critical effect.6 These elements are well-expressed in Wells-Barnett's first work, Southern Horrors, whose title mocked southern "honor" as a "horror" and which described southern society as a "white man's county" in which free speech and fair treatment were systematically denied to African Americans. The pamphlet refuted the justification for lynching as punishment for black on white rape by revealing that, according to published sources, fewer than 30% of reported lynchings even involved the charge of rape much less a legally proven case of it. This finding became the cornerstone of all subsequent arguments against lynching by a wide range of reformers and critics. Wells-Barnett further described white southerners' ascription of a bestial nature to black men as a ruse that hid a number of realities unflattering to would-be southern white male protectors. First, the rape charge obscured the economic and political competition that fueled white racial hostility toward African Americans in the post-Reconstruction era. Second, it hid the consensual and sometimes illicit sexual contacts between white women and black men that took place in the past and the present.7 Third, by describing rape as an inherent inclination of black men, white men's institutionalized sexual power over black women (which included long-standing patterns of abuse and victimization that arose under slavery and continued in its aftermath) was eclipsed by sensationalism and an appeal to "nature." Wells-Barnett's work in the 1890s tended to accent white women's agency and complicity in the lynching-for-rape scenario: their betrayals of black male consorts, their silent approval of punishment, or their active participation in mobs. More recent feminists note an additional purpose of the lynching for rape scenario: to instill fear and subordination in white women, who should rightly only feel safe at home. It was the issue of women's bodies that much of the controversy over Wells-Barnett's analysis and organizing focused in the 1890s. She insisted that the so-called black rapist was in reality the innocent victim of both the mob's blood lust and white women's sexual lust. Through the acknowledgement — even tacit endorsement — of the activities of "white Juliets [and] colored Romeos" Wells-Barnett countered white supremacists' dread of race mixing and degeneration with a story of potential racial equality.8 Instead of marking the beginning of the end of Anglo-Saxon civilization or the undoing of God's work of creation, Wells-Barnett read sex across the color line as evidence of shared culture and common humanity. But because interracial marriage was prohibited by legal and social authorities, sexual contacts across the color line involving white women were stringently policed and those involving black women were ignored; both dynamics endangered black people much more than white.

Thus the anti-lynching pamphlets of the 1890s comprised a comprehensive view of southern racialized sexual politics: a vindication of black men as true men, a critique of white southern would-be male protectors as corrupt, an expose of white women as active participants in white supremacist sexual politics, and a re-centering of black women's experiences in the dynamics of rape, lynching, and sexualized racism. Wells-Barnett's pamphlets documented not sideline suffering but attacks — lynching and rape — on black women and girls. In so doing, she staked a claim of outraged womanhood for African American women that was first articulated by opponents of slavery but which was becoming unthinkable under white supremacist ideology nearing the end of the nineteenth century. Wells-Barnett described the rape of black women as of a piece with the lynching of black men: lynching and rape formed a web of racist sexual politics designed to subjugate all African Americans.

Usually, Ida B. Wells-Barnett accented race to make the case for unequal power across the color line. She and other southern African Americans were keenly aware that the rise of Jim Crow threatened to empower all "whites" over and against all "blacks" regardless of class status, Christian standing, or natural ability. At moments, however, she tweaked the concept of "race" itself, mocking the very notion of fixed racial boundaries and the supposed "black and white of it" — a sarcastic reference to the ubiquitous newsprint carrying descriptions of — indeed, advertisements for — lynchings.9 Her writings pointed to ongoing sexual contact across the color line, to the population of southerners of mixed racial ancestry, and to cases in which white men committed crimes with their faces blackened, in a kind of perverse racial theater designed to thwart the law. In other words, Wells-Barnett exposed how taken-for-granted concepts like "race" and "rape" were socially constructed and politically deployed. In so doing, she challenged readers to examine the assumption that held their personal identities and sense of the social order together. It was a challenge few joined and many resisted, even to the point of violence. The attacks on her Memphis newspaper office, the threat of lynching against her that appeared in print, and a physical assault in New York City underscored how assuming the power to "talk back" provoked defenders of white supremacy and meant her very life. In this context, the pamphlets' concluding emphasis on action, self-help, and political strategies for change including coalitions with sympathetic whites merit attention. Ida B. Wells-Barnett's later writings engage the evolving patterns of racial conflict outside the southern context. These works suggest that stereotypes about black male deviance and depravity became more of an assumption than flag or banner for instigating and rationalizing racial attacks. Her analysis of riots in New Orleans, East St. Louis, and Arkansas involved critiques of the criminal justice system — law enforcement and the court system — which began to take over the work of black subordination in the twentieth century. In her analysis of events in Arkansas in 1919, Wells-Barnett attended to the ways in which black women as well as men became caught up in white supremacist campaigns and how they fought back. In all these writings, she emphasizes strategies for resistance. Unlike the early anti-lynching pamphlets, which were acknowledged, cited, or implicitly referred to by a cross section of reformers and critics, these later works seem not to have circulated much beyond Chicago — with the important exception of The East St. Louis Massacre. Historian Linda McMurray discovered a copy in Military Intelligence Division Papers of National Archives of the United States, a reminder of federal surveillance of African Americans suspected of disloyalty in the World War I era and proof of the perception of Wells-Barnett as a potential trouble maker vis-á-vis the dominant racial order. 10

Over time, Ida B. Wells-Barnett's willingness to speak plainly about sexuality, her frank religious commitments in a skeptical and materialistic age, and her ideological rather than biological understanding of "race" in social life and politics fell out of favor with trends in social reform and civil rights agitation. The NAACP, founded in 1909, adopted a legislative approach to ending lynching, and a small handful of anti-lynching bills went down to defeat by the U.S. Senate in the interwar period.11 As the progressive era unfolded, theoretically any professional armed with documented or scientific fact was empowered to speak definitively on lynching and race. Wells-Barnett's authority as a witness, southerner, and black woman drew on her status as victim and survivor. In the new era, legal and scientific credentials, usually more accessible to men than women, moved to the center of organized reform and figures like Du Bois or Woodson looked past her contributions to the struggle. Beginning in the 1980s, however, a fresh appraisal of African American women's history by scholars like Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Paula Giddings, and Hazel V. Carby refocused academic attention on Ida B. Wells-Barnett and as a result, her work has become much more accessible and regularly accounted for in the teaching and study of African American history in U.S. secondary and higher education.

Secondary Source Bibliography

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Cortner, Richard C. A Mob Intent on Death: The NAACP and the Arkansas Riot Cases. Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Fitzhugh Brundage, ed. Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching, rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Rise of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard, 1987.

Feimster, Crystal Nicole. "Ladies and Lynching: The Gendered Discourse of Mob Violence in the New South, 1880-1930." PhD Diss. Princeton University, 2000.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Gilmore, Glenda. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina. 1896-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Hodes, Martha. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Hair, William Ivy. Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Black, Thinking Feminist. Boston: South End Press, 1989.

Linda O. McMurry. To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Southern History Across the Color Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Rudwick, Elliott and August Meier. Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.

Schechter, Patricia A. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Tolnay, Stewart Emory. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Useful Links (all viewed 10/12/06)

"We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement." Ida B. Wells-Barnett House, http://www.cr.nps.gov/nR/travel/civilrights/il2.htm

African American Perspectives. Short entry on Ida B. Wells-Barnett. http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/aap/idawells.html (Library of Congress)

National Women's Hall of Fame. http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=167

Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America. http://www.withoutsanctuary.org/main.html.


1 G.C. Holt, "Lynching and Mobs" Elizabeth, NJ, 1894 (paper before the American Sociological Association); "Editorial" Colored American Magazine 4 (1902): 279.

2 For just a few recent examples of analyses of lynching see W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Stewart Emory Tolnay, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 (University of Illinois Press, 1995); Crystal Nicole Feimster, "Ladies and Lynching: The Gendered Discourse of Mob Violence in the New South, 1880-1930" (PhD Diss. Princeton University, 2000).

3 "Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Postscript by W.E.B. Du Bois," Crisis (June 1931): 207.

4 Ida B. Wells-Barnett Diary, Monday 13 January 1930 in Miriam DeCosta Willis, ed., The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 168.

5 See for example, Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

6 bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Black, Thinking Feminist (Boston: South End Press, 1989).

7 Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

8 Wells, Southern Horrors, in Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, ed. and compiled by Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 19.

9 Ibid, p. 20.

10 Linda O. McMurry, To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 384, n. 33.

11 Senate Resolution 39 in February 2005 passed "Apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendents of those victims for the failure of the senate to pass antilynching legislation."



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